Chapter 2: The Girl can’t fly.
“…That way, regular humans would just pass by without noticing it, but Tsukagi Saki and the wolf Moon Eater would enter without noticing. This barrier is quite lacking in many ways. In a normal situation it was supposed to protect the latter ones, but… Hey, Butterfly, are you listening?”
My companion spoke to me in a clear voice.
We were currently on a deserted asphalt highway, one you could find anywhere in the country. I had been staring at the ground, leaning on the rusted guardrail.
“Hm? Yeah, I’m listening. So what was it with that purple fairy that pops out of the ground?”
I lifted my face and looked at my companion.
She was Verdandi, a beautiful woman who called herself a goddess.
Wrapped in a silk cloth that acted as a dress and wearing sandals in interlocking patterns, she looked like she had just sprung into life from a painting.
Even her face and proportions seemed like they belonged to the main focus of a piece of art.
Her hair flowed like a golden river and her eyes had the color of the deep sea. Her skin was white and smooth, like powder snow–––she probably had never once in her life worn makeup, and to be honest it would be useless on her.
I did think it was suspicious–––dangerous even, for her to call herself a goddess. But as much as I wanted to deny it, it seemed to be true.
This world can be really unfair sometimes. Though I already knew that.
“…Listen now.” She sighed, with melancholy and exhaustion mixed in equal parts. Even expressing herself like that, she still preserved her elegance, as was to be expected from a goddess.
“You weren’t paying any attention at all were you?”
“But you’re the one who started talking about senseless things, aren’t you?”
I replied unconcerned and turned my head down to look at myself.
There hadn’t been a chance for me to take care of my short hair, so it remained damaged, stained and starting to fall in spots. I still had trouble tying my bandages to hide the left eye I lost, and the excess ends rested on my shoulder. My clothes were just my sailor uniform that I had cut shorter, and I was still missing the scarf I had lost a long while before.
At my feet lay the backpack I had, with a change of clothes inside. The backpack itself was just a common discolored hiking one.
I had gotten it around a week earlier, yet there was something in my current situation that felt unfair.
Verdandi didn’t carry any sort of luggage with her, yet she would pull out money or random objects from somewhere all the time.
I really wished I had been taught similar magic instead of just fire magic.
“You really…” she started with a laugh, as if mocking me. “…like Saki.”
My two hands moved almost by instinct, taking the folding pocket knives I always had in my pockets out and unsheathing them.
I gritted my teeth and lunged forward as the blades cut through the wind, crossing and forming a scissor just in front of her neck.
I couldn’t think of a name for the emotion that had just overtaken me. It had been warm yet cold, cruel but gentle, a really repulsive feeling, yet very dear to me.
Memories flashed back.
Tsukagi Saki with a ridiculing smile plastered on her face.
Her name alone tormented me like a curse.
It almost felt like I had needles poking deep inside me.
“I want…ll her…”
I want to kill her. I have to kill her.
Barely holding my sanity together, I felt my hatred burning up as if fuel had been dunked over a small ember.
“What a pitiful butterfly.”
She murmured, completely unfazed by the blades. Then she brought her face closer to mine, so close I could almost feel the blood being pumped under her skin.
Her blue eyes peeked into mine, and mine got trapped in hers.
I saw myself reflected in the eyes of this goddess, who never stopped to smile gracefully.
I looked hideous. Stained with dirt, scars and wounds, just like a bug that crawled on the ground.
My right eye, the only one I had left, began glowing with an aura of hatred.
As my mind was lost in all these things, I muttered her name.
“You want to meet her again, don’t you?”
Verdandi asked, slowly raising her finger.
As if signaling the way, her finger pointed at the road.
Further ahead it split into two paths, one of them continued as the highway.
The other continued to a road paved with stone.
Nothing stood out or seemed off from the two roads joining like that.
Yet normal people didn’t realize it was there at all.
They all seemed oblivious to the fact there was a bifurcation in the first place.
Only those who had been in contact, even if it were only a single hair, with the world in that side, would notice it.
Apparently it was caused by a spell called barrier, but I didn’t know much more.
Normally, it was supposed to be known by any magician or sorcerer. But I could barely be considered one so it wasn’t my fault. There was a lot I didn’t know.
On top of that, it had barely been a month since I became one.
“You know… Tsukagi Saki, she’s inside there”
The goddess smiled beautifully, even though her smile was mixed with venom.
Or maybe it was the other way around, it was beautiful because it was venomous.
Somehow, she reminded me of Tsukagi Saki.
And as soon as that thought came to my mind, I felt nauseous.
But I had to make a choice now, and was there anyone who could tell me to take a different option now?
“What are you going to do though?”
I asked her, lowering the knives and folding the blade back as I returned them to my pockets.
“I won’t do anything.” She gracefully spread her palms. “Because everything is already in the palms of my hands.”
The true meaning of her words couldn’t be observed through her blue eyes.
There was only breathtaking beauty there, nothing more.
I snorted lightly and walked away from her.
I was fully aware she was just utilizing me, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“Good day, good day, good day, butterfly that crawls on the earth.”
When I entered the city, the first thing I felt was warmth, even though it was already fall- actually, it was probably winter already.
The next thing I did was to lightly tap with the tip of my foot the stones paving the road, just to check if they were really there.
“What a weird feeling.”
I muttered without noticing. An instant later I remembered I didn’t have a companion that would reply to me anymore, and realizing that, I shrugged my shoulders and lifted my lips into a self-deprecating smile.
The buildings around me were built from stone and bricks, fancy street lamps adorned the way forward and a river crossed the city flowing to the west.
This city looked like it could create a nice scenery. Actually living in it…well, in that case anywhere would be the same.
Then I decided to test something. I took my cell phone out of my pocket and checked the screen, the signal was out of range, and the clock showed a little past ten.
Still clinging to something like this felt irresolute of me.
Without much thought, I kicked the guardrails, adorned with a stylish carving. Then I remembered the sorcerer who was my master.
An old guy with a stupid smile wearing sunglasses and an aloha shirt.
Somehow I felt that someone like him would like this kind of city.
Although his appearance was always smiling, he carried a very heavy burden in his heart. And maybe it was because he didn’t feel like teaching me, or maybe he just wasn’t good at it, but he just wasn’t the best mentor.
Everything I learned about magic was close to nothing.
And there was only one thing I remembered clearly.
‘To put it simply, all that’s really needed to use magic is your imagination.’
‘Flames’ that could be used as a base existed everywhere. All that was needed was to expand on them
The act of breathing was just the slow combustion of oxygen, living that of energy, and even our bodies had their own heat. So in other words, humans themselves were a type of living ‘flame’.
Imagination–––I knew that was just a way to get a general direction and shape.
And because I understood that, I could do things like this now.
I muttered, the scar on my chest hurt, and my heart throbbed.
A single butterfly made of flames emerged from my fingertip, taking flight and dancing in the air around me, and before anyone noticed it, I grasped it in my hand dissipating it.
“Oh well, better head forward for now.”
And just like I muttered, for now, I started walking forward.
Still, as long as I didn’t know the geography of the place I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.
In the distance I saw a bridge, so for now–––only for now––– I headed that way.
Even when adorned this way, a city was a city, so it was obvious there were people dwelling here. Cars and people would constantly pass by.
Small trucks loaded with sandbags, cars pulling ropes tied to light artillery pieces that I had only seen in movies before also passed by.
An office worker holding multiple large guns in his arms too, and an old lady wearing an apron, holding a gun loaded with a scope.
They all looked expressionless like dolls, and their gait was well paced to the point it could have been the perfect reference for someone learning to march.
Yes, it was a completely normal scenery.
“Well no, that would be stretching it way too much.” For some reason I retorted on my own thoughts aloud.
Just what the heck was going on?
Had I walked into a movie set? No, that couldn’t be it.
I tried to think about it for some time, but stopped moments later. There was a chance I’d figure it out soon after all, though I could end up staying in the dark forever, not like it really mattered.
The far away bridge was looking a bit more closer when I noticed that girl.
She was besides one of the street lamps, melancholic and small, like an abandoned kitten.
Her hair looked like dull silver and was seated on a wheelchair.
She was wearing a very girly white dress that was covered in frills and laces, her hands covered in elbow length gloves of white and red. It looked like she was ready for a ball.
I walked up to her and squatted in front of her before raising my voice.
“Hey, is everything alright?”
In an extremely slow pace, like a budding cherry tree, she lifted her face.
Her eyes, like green leaves in May, stared blankly and unfocused. It was as if she were daydreaming.
Everything else that remained with her was confusion and uneasiness.
“You’re mistaking me for someone else.” I said slowly, looking straight at her unseeing eyes. “I’m…Butterfly, you can call me Butterfly.”
For a moment I thought of telling her my real name, but didn’t.
What the actual heck, I really can’t think of myself as a human now.
As I remembered my old name, I also recalled all my memories from my past life.
“I’m sorry, I was truly out of it for a moment there.”
The tone of her voice piercing my heart with every word.
“I’m fine. Yes, I’m completely fine.”
Her eyes were facing me, but she wasn’t seeing me at all.
She was hearing my voice, but she wasn’t listening to me at all.
Please stop, don’t look at me with those eyes, don’t look like this in front of me.
It was making me remember. The things I lost…All of them came back in a flash, the memories of that childhood friend.
“I’m sorry, but I need to take my leave. I have to go to school, Yuunagi must be waiting there. She must, surely, be waiting for me. So it’s fine, it has to be.”
She spoke as if convincing herself of her words, and started rolling her wheelchair in the direction of the bridge.
Yet her movements looked clumsy and precarious.
Just where had she come from to be like this? Even the red on her gloves was the same deep color of blood.
She had probably gotten a cut on a finger, or a broken nail.
I was searching for Tsukagi Saki, not this child that was painful just to look at.
I had no clue what was the matter with her either, so it was best just to abandon her.
Her back slowly moving forward with the wheelchair looked really small and feeble.
I took two steps forward and grasped the handles behind the wheelchair.
“I’ll take you wherever you’re headed to.”
Her voice was sharp and commanding. Without turning her head up, she strongly embraced herself.
“It’s Yuunagi’s role to push my wheelchair.”
With sluggish movements she turned her head a bit and peeked at me from the corner of her eyes.
I strongly felt that I was irritating her.
“I won’t. There’s no way I could move on without it bugging the hell out of me were I to leave a weak and obstinate person like you behind! So shut up and let me help you here!”
She looked slightly shocked. Her green eyes fixated on me, seemingly lost for words.
“What a weird person.”
“I know that already.”
And then, she finally smiled for once. Though it was just to giggle a bit.
“Then please take me to the school grounds. First we’ll have to get to the bridge, then follow the main street until we reach the west outskirts of the city. We’ll arrive at the school then.”
“Hm, gotcha…Oh right, what’s your name?”
“What a weird name.”
“Isn’t yours like that too though?”
“Now you’re talking.” I laughed a bit too. “Even though you were all sulky until a moment ago.”
“Hmph.” She pouted a bit and looked away, probably embarrassed. “I was just a bit shaken up.”
“Shaken up, huh. Did you have a fight with that Yuunagi person or something?”
There was no reply. Only the rattling noise of the wheelchair rolling on the stone ground.
And that was the only noise I heard for a while, as we kept advancing through the old-smelling buildings erected on both sides of the street.
From time to time the residents of the city would pass by, all of them walking with the same well timed gait and holding the same kind of guns in their hands.
I thought I knew what type of gun it was, so I kept staring at them trying to remember. I really thought I knew, but I couldn’t remember for some reason.
In any case, it was a weird city. It seemed like the most normal thing to do, walking around with guns.
“She wasn’t there.”
That short sentence came out of the blue from her lips.
“When I woke up this morning, Yuunagi wasn’t there by my side, like she had always been. I searched the kitchen, the toilet and the bathroom. Everywhere in the house, but I couldn’t find her.”
“I understand how you feel.” I said, nodding. “It’s really…sad, when someone who was always by your side simply disappears one day. Like your heart is torn in two, and they run away with one half.”
She turned her head around, fixing her eyes on me as if clinging onto me. At the same time, the rattling noise became more disordered.
“And…Butterfly, what did you do afterwards?”
“I couldn’t do anything, and nothing would come out of it.”
I caressed the scar on my left eye, and closed my right eye. The image of my childhood friend surfacing vividly in my mind’s eye.
Her small back floating in darkness, her weak smile, and the gentle laugh she’d only show from time to time.
So brittle and ephemeral–––yet I loved her.
Then, I opened my eye. Otoa’s white hand, drenched in blood and bruises was stretched out and touching my cheek.
“Do I look like your person?”
“Why do you ask that?”
“Because you’re very gentle.”
When she said that, I just shrugged.
“A bit too much…!” I stopped the wheelchair. I had just spotted a pharmacy.
Well, it was just another needlessly stylish brick building, and I wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for the copper sign with ‘Pharmacy’ written on it.
“Wait here for a bit.”
I left Otoa and entered the building. The interiors looked like any normal store, a counter just past the door, and past it a bunch of shelves with medicine on them. It seemed to have been built quite a long time ago.
Compared to modern convenience or drug stores where one could freely choose the products one wanted to take, here you’d need to ask someone to get it for you, so it was much more bothersome.
I looked around the inside of the building, but I didn’t see any attendant. I tried leaning forward on the counter and calling aloud, but even then no one came.
Since that was the case, I didn’t have much other choice than to go over the counter, pick some disinfectant, bandages and band aids from the counters, and then cross the counter again.
Just in case I left some money on the counter and went back to where I left Otoa.
Not even five minutes had passed since I left, but she was just staring blankly into the sky now.
She was probably thinking of that Yuunagi person, I thought.
I lightly tapped on her shoulder and she returned to reality.
“Show me your hand.”
I kneeled in front of her and took her hand, separating it from the blood stained glove. The dried blood made a slight sound and she knitted her eyebrows in pain.
“Tell me if it stings.”
I said as I rubbed her bruises with the disinfectant.
Her eyebrows knitted even more and she narrowed her eyes as her body turned stiff.
“Well, better bear with it then.” I said as I kept disinfecting her wounds.
Screams seemed to be welling up in her, but they didn’t manifest in her voice.
“I can’t do that, it’ll sting either way so give up on trying to change how I do it.”
“…What you said makes sense, but for some reason I can’t accept it.”
“Once you get a bit older you’ll understand it better.”
“I’m already fourteen!”
I brushed her response away and finished applying the disinfectant and put a band aid on. It seems that the bandages I had brought just in case had been too excessive for the bruises she had.
“Alright, everything’s fixed up.” I said after I placed the last band aid and stood up. Then making the dirty glove dance around my fingers I asked, “What will you do with this glove? Wear it again?”
She nodded, so I placed it on top of her hand covered in band aids.
Then she clumsily inserted her hand inside the blood stained glove.
“These clothes, you see.” She started saying as she passed her gloved hands in front of her face.
“Are Yuunagi’s favorites. Apparently they suit me the best.”
Her hands looked tiny. Like they’d crumble if I were to grasp them too hard.
If she were to be compared to a doll, she would be a most delicate one.
Thoughts like those circled in my mind as I looked down at her body, which could easily pass for an elementary student’s.
But she said she was fourteen. That wasn’t too different from my own age.
“…Even though you’re so small.”
“Hey! Are you perhaps thinking something extremely rude right now?!”
“Nah, not really. Rather, do you like milk?”
“Not really. I can’t stand the smell.”
“It’d be better if you did. Apparently it can help a lot of parts grow.”
“You really were thinking something rude!”
“Who knows, maybe I was.”
Engaging in worthless banter I started pushing the wheelchair again.
It might have been easier to just stay silent, but then the mood would be too bleak.
Just hearing the rattling of the wheelchair would be somewhat lonely, after all.
At last, the bridge became closer and with it, bigger.
“Tell me, do you love Yuunagi-san?”
I asked without much thought.
“I don’t know.” She hung her head down. “There’s someone else I already like. But…since Yuunagi disappeared I haven’t been able to calm down. It’s like you said, like half of my heart is gone…I don’t really know.”
She took a deep breath afterwards.
“It would have been so much easier if I only thought of one person, and never got moved by anyone else.”
“What kind of person is it then? The one you like.”
I freed one of my hands and petted her silver head with my hand.
Gently, just like I had once done to my childhood friend when we were small.
The stiffness on her shoulder left as she leaned back. Relaxing and letting all her weight rest on the wheelchair. Then, with a much more soft voice she spoke.
“It’s a very pretty person. Cold like the snow, transparent like ice, and sharp like a blade. Sometimes I would think, if maybe it wasn’t someone who came from a different world. That maybe it was more like a traveler, who was only stopping here for a moment.”
As her back was leaned on the wheelchair, her face turned up to the sky and I saw her smiling with a clear smile. She was beautiful, and cute. Both in equal amounts.
Her smile made me want to protect her.
But would that really be the correct choice–––the reply was immediate.
My past, raised like an armor around me, and my regrets that served no purpose.
I had wanted to protect my childhood friend. She was really precious to me, she ought to have been.
And to accomplish that, I found enemies. If one person in the class was directly attacked, forced into being some sort of sacrifice, everyone else would be united for that cause.
The worst kind of scheme one could think of.
By prodding on a bush, I had found a snake, or more like a dragon, I had to give it to her in some way.
I had been really stupid.
So stupid I felt like killing myself.
Then, I felt the wheelchair jolt as it ran over a large pebble.
“Hii!” Otoa shrieked softly and grasped the armrests.
I apologized to her as she looked up at me pouting and looking bothered, then I started pushing again, more carefully this time.
“Were you spacing out or something? At least pay attention to my story.”
“Yes yes.” I spaced out because I paid too much attention though. “I’m sorry.”
The rattling of the wheelchair mixed into our conversation.
Talking like that, without any deeper meaning, was fun.
I felt like I had, after a very very long time, turned back into at least a semblance of my old self.
I felt that at this rate I would be able to make a dead stop, turn around, return home and sleep for a while, and just forget everything that had happened.
It’s not like there was no way for me to return.
They would get mad at me, sure, but that was it.
I could go to school once again, attend classes normally, and live normally.
“I really wonder what I’m doing now.”
I muttered in a voice so low no one heard it.
I want to go back.
But that wish was nothing but an illusion.
We arrived at the bridge, and then changed our course towards the school.
Then, everything started to fade away like a dream one would see in the middle of a nap.
Before I realized, my surroundings had changed into a confusing scene.
I started seeing people holding guns come out from the buildings around me, then group up in the street and start shooting towards the main street.
Someone threw a hand grenade which exploded a few seconds later, followed by the noise from the rain of fragments caused by it. They formed a large barricade closing off the street, bringing in larger artillery and explosives.
It was almost as if they were in the middle of war.
But one point in particular was sucking in all my attention.
There was someone there, in the middle of the storm of bullets. A single girl walking a bit too calmly considering the situation.
She had white porcelain-like skin, and jet black hair, like it was dyed in the night.
Her school uniform looked plain, which seemed to suit her well.
First, everything turned gray.
Then all sounds faded away, and lastly, my eyes couldn’t see anything but her.
A sensation like bolts of electricity ran through my skin, my hair bristled up and my insides turned hot.
All my hesitation burned, my illusions burned, and my regrets burned.
My mind was taken over by her, and everything else just burned away.
My childhood friend too, and Otoa too, Verdandi, my future, and past–––
“Ah…” I heard her voice.
“So you came.” She said, smiling.
“Butterfly.” She looked beautiful it was almost cruel.
So refined it was scary.
But when I thought about it, why was I…
With the image of an explosion. The scar etched in my chest began glowing red.
My thoughts beginning to rewrite reality making me feel as though I were drunk.
Both my hands reached, like always, to my knives and took them out.
Then covering their blades in fire I started to run forward.
I headed straight for Tsukagi Saki, who was haughtily walking forward on the stone paving, looking as though she were a merciless ice queen.
Then with her long hair fluttering behind her, she stretched her arms out, nimble and clad in black, followed by hands and fingers like ice sculptures, as if welcoming me, inviting me towards her.
“I’ll kill you. It was always you, only you–––!”
She kept walking through the waves of bullets that so suddenly started to rain upon her.
Her silhouette, black like darkness, seemed somehow extremely dazzling inside of it.
Her face, white like silver, looking extremely ominous.
I called the name of the rune inscribed in my chest. The call worked as a trigger, and my magic began to form.
Small explosions went off under my feet and propulsed by them, I leapt forward.
I shifted the knives in my hands to a backhand grip and flew on like an arrow.
Yet she hadn’t moved at all in retaliation.
She only sharpened her smile.
Even my breath seemed to expel heat as I opened my single eye.
“Sigel! Bring forth the cursed sword from the lands of fire and become a thunderous and scorching heat.”
The intensity of the fire coming from my knives increased as I swung them like swords.
Then, accelerating the rhythm I had kept until now, I made another swing, horizontal this time.
In response, her body swayed from side to side as if she was dancing.
Her hair flowed behind her and her skirt spread, even though she was only moving to evade, her hair that was taken by the wind looked like a black flower…so much so that I felt almost fascinated by it.
After all, I really…
“I hate you!”
I twisted my body around and chased after her with my knives.
She kept swaying to and fro, evading every single hit.
After the second exchange, our positions were reversed.
Behind her, I could see the bridge and Otoa.
Only then it really clicked inside me.
In reality, we hadn’t been exchanging anything at all, I had just been charging forward.
She had never thought of fighting me.
I wasn’t being treated like her opponent.
She hadn’t thought I was her opponent!
I roared loudly, almost feeling my throat being ripped open by the intensity of it.
If she’s trying to behave like that, I’ll have to force her to look at me as her opponent!
Channeling my imagination, I changed the shape of the knives’ flames.
I thought of my name. The name she herself had given me.
“Look at me! Tsukagi Saki!”
Butterflies made of flames sprang out from the knives.
The countless fiery red butterflies waved their wings and danced around her.
If she touched them, she’d get burnt.
She stopped dead in her tracks.
But it wasn’t out of fear.
“This looks quite beautiful. A red like this, that rivals even that of a sunset.”
A sharp pain invaded my left eye.
“Then burn together with it!”
In an instant I made all the butterflies dart towards her body.
“Honestly, what a courageous and endearing person.”
Her voice was beautiful, as if trying to mock me.
She kept smiling in a bewitching manner, her arms still stretched out.
“Butterfly, stop!” Otoa screamed.
Almost touching her, the butterflies stopped.
I was the one who had told them to stop, and they did stop.
“Stop, please don’t kill the person I love.”
The young voice pleaded.
“…What, are you an idiot?”
Love? Her? What is she blabbering about?
Otoa, are you insane?
I pressed the handle of a knife on my temple. Then as if a switch had been flipped, I started laughing loudly like fireworks in the twilight sky.
“What are you thinking? Saying you love this incarnation of hell itself?!”
I didn’t know what sort of face I was making, but Otoa stopped breathing in shock, and receded her wheelchair.
“But then again, it’s not like I have to really worry about you, do I?”
My laughter dying off as quickly as it appeared, causing the atmosphere to ring out more clearly.
For a few seconds I had stopped thinking about Tsukagi Saki.
During that time, she had slipped through the tightly crowding butterflies.
As my concentration had been disturbed, my magic was thrown out of order and the butterflies started to waver and fall, losing their shape.
“Don’t forget that if you don’t run away too they’ll get you.”
She reached out and pointed behind me with her finger, as if reaching out for one of the butterflies.
Then I noticed the sound of many footsteps behind me.
I turned my head to look behind.
It was a formation of girls, carrying guns and with no facial expressions whatsoever like a troop, all of them wearing a school uniform.
Their heads were lined perfectly one after another like dumplings on a skewer and they advanced mechanically.
For a moment, I was lost for words. Maybe if they had been wearing some sort of military uniform I would’ve been able to accept it more easily, but no matter how I looked at them they were around the same age as me, and wore blazers.
As soon as Tsukagi Saki started to escape, they increased their speed.
Only then I returned to my senses.
“What the heck is going on in this city?! Some sort of war-“
I wanted to hit my head at that moment.
That reminded me, I thought I saw preparations for something like that earlier. Or rather, I saw them working hard at it, and it wasn’t even that long ago!
I had just been ignoring it, convincing myself it wasn’t related to me!
“It just didn’t make sense no matter how you look at it! Is this city in war?”
And was that against Tsukagi Saki too?
“You’re the worst!”
I yelled at her, her long hair dangling as she went further away.
“Wait, Saki, Butterfly, what does this all mean?”
Otoa took longer than me to recompose herself. She quickly turned her head to follow the trail Tsukagi Saki ran through, as her silver hair moved in the air with her movement.
“Don’t ask me!”
I instinctively screamed at her when replying.
Then I grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and started to follow her.
A cold chill ran down my spine as I felt the shockwaves from guns shooting.
Who were those people? What would happen if they caught up with us? Rather, this situation just seemed plain dangerous!
“I swear, this is why I say you’re the absolute worst, Tsukagi Saki!”
I broke off running and went back up on the bridge. I was moving away from the school now, but that didn’t matter in this situation.
Luckily, the people behind me didn’t seem to want to shoot.
But for some reason, on top of the bridge…there was no one?
But Tsukagi Saki didn’t seem to have noticed that and just moved forward without hesitation.
Though rather than not hesitating, that was almost as if she was…hurrying…
And also, I only thought about it at this moment, but the white wolf that always accompanied her wasn’t there now.
“Shut up, you might bite your tongue off.”
“It’s just that I thought of something scary.”
“I said to shut up!”
“There was a time I saw a movie scene really similar to this situation. The main character was also on a bridge like this, being chased onto it without any other route to escape…”
“Don’t say it, I also thought about it but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
For some reason, I felt my lips lifting, forming a sour smile.
Could she really feel nothing? Nothing at all?
I started wondering that as I saw her back turning smaller in the distance.
And then, just like we had guessed, an explosion happened and the bridge exploded, throwing us up into the air.
I hugged Otoa trying to protect her, and let gravity pull on my body.
The ruins from what used to be the bridge followed after us as we fell into the river.
“There’s something I want.”
I felt a slight warmth coming from the body I was embracing, the feeling of dull silver hair brushing against me, and the sound of a beating heart.
Ahh, this feels somewhat nostalgic. A long time ago I would comfort Aya, my childhood friend, like this when she would cry.
“What is it?”
“I want to see Yuunagi.”
“Please, let me meet her, I mean it.”
“I promise you, okay?”
“Okay, I’ll trust you. That’s all I’ll ask for–––to meet Yuunagi.”
Raising a large column of water, we sank into the river.
The world illuminated by the setting sun across the surface of the water looked almost like a different world, covered by a slight haze.
But to think that the world could look this…
“It’s so beautiful.”
Why am I…
My clothes, soaked in water, felt heavy like stones pulling me down. And then a white light enveloped me and…
…I lost consciousness.
Everything was dark around me when I woke up, but there was a strong scent of soil. Shortly after, the scent of trees appeared too. The scent of an old tree, that somehow felt nostalgic to me.
I should’ve fallen into the river after the bridge was blown up yet…
…could it be that I died?
Was this hell?
Ahh…well, guess I kicked the bucket… But well, guess that’s fine too. After all, I had a worthless life, so a worthless end is fitting…Tsukagi Saki…for some reason only that name comes to mind now.
Her image floated inside my groggy mind.
An image even darker than the darkness covering my senses. Her raven-colored hair, slightly wet in a sensual way, and her somewhat sharp red lips.
Just a smile, and not a scoffing one. As if staring at something worthless, that kind of smile.
That was the smile she…she was showing in reaction to me!
I can’t die yet. I can’t die until I kill her!
I noticed my heart beating, listened to the flow of blood in my body. The scar carved into my chest was pulsating.
I was still alive.
Yet my voice couldn’t manifest itself. I tried to move my lips and forced my right eye to open, my eyelids felt heavy, like they were made of steel.
Still unable to move my head, I surveyed my own state.
I was lying on top of the ground. I could feel the dirt through the fabric of my sailor uniform. It was soft, and slightly wet, like the dampness of a grave.
It seemed like I was in a forest somewhere. I could see multiple trees surrounding me, or to be more precise, only the roots and a bit above that. The trees looked weird, covered in an ashen gray color.
I was alive. I was conscious. And yet I couldn’t move my body.
I wasn’t hurting anywhere though, it was only my body that felt heavy, as if my bones had turned into lead. I just couldn’t move.
But then again, in a certain way, that wasn’t too different from being dead.
“Ohh, it seems you’ve woken up.” I heard a voice coming from my blind spot. Then it slowly moved around, showing itself to my side.
It was a red wolf.
His fur had a red shine, like fiery flames, his eyes a deep dark color.
And in his mouth he held a small apple–––though ash, or more like iron colored–––which he placed on the ground.
“Eat a little bit, just a small amount. If you do so, you should be able to move again. But don’t eat too much, or you might never go back.”
As he spoke, he made the apple roll with the tip of his legs.
Rolling on the ground, it hit my lips and bounced a small distance away before remaining still.
I opened my mouth, with a similar effort as needed to open a rusted shutter door, and bit into the gray apple, shaving a part of it with the tip of my teeth.
I swallowed the small bite I took, and at the same time as it hit my stomach, just like the wolf had said, I felt a bit better.
“The heck, I’m so tired…I swear…”
I took a deep breath, and grumbled a bit. The feeling of touch also began to return to the smaller parts of my body, like my fingertips.
Then I took another bite from the apple, and then stopped eating.
It’d be better if I didn’t eat too much from it, or rather, it was the safest choice. He shouldn’t have any reason to deceive me. And if he did intend to hurt me, there had been plenty of chances for him before this already.
Moreover, I wasn’t involved in the recent events and only happened to get mixed in. There were no third parties that resented me…I thought, probably.
“That amount should be fine, you should be able to stand up in a short while. You’re a magician so you should be able to adapt quickly to this side.”
I turned my neck around and glared at the red wolf through the corner of my eye.
“Who are you? How do you know that?”
“My name isn’t worth mentioning, I’m not someone that important. I was just studying Tsukagi Saki, and as I did so, I happened to gain knowledge of some small tidbits related to her, that’s all.”
I tried to move my fingers. That made a sharp pain prickle through my fingertips and towards my body, as if I had submerged them in boiling hot water.
“That’s also how I obviously got to know you… Which I guess means that I should refer to you as Butterfly rather than your real name. Since you were named that by her, haunted by her, and forced to stay in her shadow. So in the end, you became nothing but simply ‘Butterfly’.”
“Don’t pretend like you know what you’re talking about.”
I mumbled for a moment.
“I can’t deny that, but…”
“You see, I…” He started smiling, the ends of his mouth lifting and the corners of his eyes lowering.
It also seemed like he was about to bite, though. But I judged that it had to be a smile.
“…have grown quite fond of you.”
“…I don’t know how to act being told that by an animal.”
I shrugged my shoulders, still lying on the ground.
He seemed pleased as he swung his tail once.
“The way you’re acting right now is what made me like you. You’re plenty messed up, you’d be so much more relieved if you went to the same lengths as Tsukagi Saki, yet you’re just idling around one last step away from it.”
A sudden pain attacked my hollow left eye.
As if a bug had snuck in. I felt a strong pain, itching and irritation. I almost wanted to stick my finger inside the wound and scratch off whatever was in there.
“I envy you a bit. You received a carved seal for Tsukagi Saki, a mark in your chest, a wound where you used to have an eye, magic in your soul, and understanding what all that meant, you still decided to choose her.”
It itches, it itches so freaking much, it aches, throbs, hurts, itches.
It’s so hot.
The Sigel in my chest was shining softly, magic was forcibly altering my body heat and accelerating my heart rate. For a moment I felt my consciousness burning away, pure pain and agony racing through my body. To cope with that amount of pain, my brain was producing large amounts of endorphins.
My breath was disordered, my lungs felt hot like clumps of fire, and tears overflowed from my eyes without stopping.
My view, flickering in red and black, started to form a figure.
A girl with long hair spreading behind her, holding a whip in her hand. A girl with white skin wearing a black sailor uniform. A girl that was beautiful like a sculpture, and cold like ice.
“Be it a curse, be it out of love, you really chose a hard life to live.”
“Shut up!” I yelled, dispersing the illusion of Tsukagi Saki.
Then I lunged towards the red wolf, kicking the ground off with my legs like a beast.
I wrapped my left hand around his neck and held his head with my right.
His fur felt somewhat flexible but firm, the scent of blood came from his body, and his red eyes had a melancholic shine to them.
“Get scorched to death, mongrel.”
A red glow came from the scar in my chest and magic transformed my body into flames.
Only my lips were smiling, my right eye glared with animosity and a violent urge churned the inside of my chest.
The wolf stood completely still, and said.
“Any sort of strong emotions get turned into strong effects and actions in this place. Just like how you were able to move so quickly right now, or how your old scar started to ache earlier. Try to be more careful.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I replied sarcastically as I took the flames inside my body and changed their shape before manifesting them outside.
I imagined destruction.
I had no reason to dilly dally about it, I just had to picture Tsukagi Saki’s face.
“Sigel! Bring forth the giant from the lands of fire and–––”
“You don’t have to hurt yourself so much, you know.” In a soothing manner, the wolf rubbed it’s nose on my nape.
It was a sudden and gentle act.
My imagination was shattered and the flames died down as I let go of my magic.
At the same time, a dull pain invaded my head, the burden of having failed to cast magic.
“There’s no reason for you to tell me that.”
I turned my head away from his red eyes as I spat those words.
Like a child that had been taught something, he nodded.
“Well, if you can move this much then I guess you’re okay. Now, let’s go.”
“…Go? Where?” I noticed my voice had started to turn irritated.
“To where she–––the girl you all call Otoa is.”
That’s right, there was Otoa too.
As soon as I remembered her, another important question flooded my mind.
Where was I? How did I land in a place like this after falling from the bridge?
I turned my head to look at my surroundings…
And lost my breath.
I didn’t think there was anywhere in the world that would look like this.
“This place is called the Iron Forest.” The red wolf told me.
Just like the name suggested, the trees around me all had an iron-like color.
The forest looked deep, really deep. No matter what direction I turned to, I saw the forest extending as far as I could see. It seemed almost like this forest would extend to the ends of the world.
No wind blew, the sky looked gloomy, and the soil was cold.
“This used to be the forest where the wolf harbinger of the end lived, together with its family. But now there’s nothing here, just the traces of a dream.”
I couldn’t hear the sound of any animal, any bird or any insect.
Then the red wolf signaled to a direction with the tip of his nose.
“Anyway, let me guide you then, to the deepest depths of the Iron Forest where Otoa is.”
Moving ahead to where his nose pointed, he walked ahead of me.
Even here, I still didn’t have any other option than to follow him.
The weariness of my body had already dissipated by the time I stood up. Then I tapped on the soil with the tip of my shoes to make sure the sense of touch had returned to my whole body.
The dirt under my feet deformed as expected, and my body was moving the way I wanted. So I took the bandage around my left eye and fixed it, throwing the excess bandage behind my shoulder.
Next, I felt my pockets to confirm I still had my knives.
They were still there, ready for me to take them out to fight at any moment.
I ran my fingers along the bandage one last time and followed walking behind the red wolf.
As I walked through it, I noticed, way more than I would have liked, that this forest was dead.
I couldn’t feel any life at all. From the way the ground felt as I stepped on it nor from the air I breathed.
There was only a scent like rusted iron, and unusually cold air. That was all I felt, and I quickly got tired of it.
I stared at the tail of the red wolf, swinging from side to side as he walked in silence and heaved a sigh.
I didn’t know how to deal with silence. If I knew this was going to happen, Verdandi would’ve been…a better companion, maybe, something told me I could be wrong though.
“Hey, say something already.”
“I’m looking for a lover.” He stopped walking for a moment, said that, and started walking again.
“I’m into one-eyed girls that burn out their bodies, carried away by feelings that won’t be repaid. If you know of any girl like that, please let me know.”
“Say something I can work with better than that, that sounded so stupid.”
I softly poked at his sides with the tip of my shoes.
He seemed to be tickled, as his face contorted a bit and his ears twitched, chuckling a bit.
“About magic–––” His face turned serious again. “It was originally not something humans had. It’s the physical manifestation of things people prodded into and acted like, things opposite to who they were.”
He kept talking in a simple tone.
“In a way, it resembles a strong medicine. It exists naturally, but it’s not something used in most situations.”
“So for example, it’s not something I should use on my own body.”
I muttered finishing his sentence. I started to caress the scar on my chest through my clothes.
Sigel, the rune of the sun.
“Exactly. Normally, no one would use it. Just like medicine, it’s only used when it’s necessary. If abused, it would only ruin your body.”
“Let me tell you again, that’s not something related to you.”
I rejected his words in a stiff tone, but he didn’t seem to mind it and kept talking.
“You’re doing exactly that. To put it simply, you’ve obtained a really strong force, but as you use it, magic chips away pieces of you. It’s the same as a burning candle. In the end, you’ll be incredibly powerful, just like how a candle is the brightest an instant before dying.”
“Just let me be… I already knew that when I looked for magic.”
For the sake of my hurt childhood friend, and for the me who didn’t know where to go anymore…
…I started to burn my life away.
“The time you have left isn’t a lot. Flames die in an instant, they just sway a bit, and then poof, they’re gone. And you should stay back before that happens to you.”
“You should be able to.”
He asserted with a strong tone. The emotion that I had just caught a glimpse of seemed really close to anger.
I stopped walking, and sensing I had stopped, he also stopped a step ahead of me.
His head turned to look at me as if asking what was wrong.
And without saying anything, I jumped on his back, sitting on it.
I felt his fur and warmth across my clothes.
“Hey, stop doing things like this.”
His voice sounded almost like someone else’s.
“You should let me be a bit selfish by now. I want to stay like this.”
I dug my fingers into the fur on his back, and lowering my head, I closed my eyes.
Afterwards, the red wolf remained silent.
I gently swayed from side to side on his back, and remembered something from the past.
It wasn’t any important story, and it was something that happened when I was only around half as tall as now, a story with my childhood friend.
Aya was her name. Written with the same character as ‘coloring’, though in contrast to her name, she was a rather plain person.
The two of us, little as we were, were keeping a little dog in a little park. I don’t remember what kind of dog it was, but every day we would bring food to that little dog.
Although to be precise, ‘keeping’ was putting it a bit too highly, it wasn’t anything that important, it was more like playing house.
And just like it started, the end of that game came suddenly.
One day, the little animal died. Its neck had been slit through, with an axe or something of that kind.
The only thing I could remember as clear as day were its resentful eyes, on its severed head.
Aya…she didn’t cry. She just stared befuddled and muttered.
“Life is a really brittle thing, huh.”
Rather than from the corpse lying in front of me, I felt a stronger sense of ‘death’ in Aya’s words.
It was also then that I really understood what dying meant.
“They just disappear this easily.”
Without caring that her clothes were getting dirty, she embraced the dog’s head with her hands.
As if grieving for the life that was lost, as if trying to bring it back with warmth.
Yet in the end, the dog stayed dead. Aya didn’t cry, and I just watched them.
“Let’s go back, the sun has set already.”
Such a stupid sounding sentence was all I said.
And the next day…
Aya appeared carrying a set of two knives.
It was only later that I learned her late grandfather’s hobby was to collect knives.
The knives she brought were folding pocket knives, with a sharp tapering tip and thin body, but they looked rather large for the little us.
“One for you.” Were her words.
She didn’t tell me why she had brought knives, why she decided to get them, or why she gave one to me. I didn’t know a single thing.
And timidly, the me from back then took the knife from her hands.
The steel felt incredibly cold, and incredibly heavy.
“…Thank you.” I told her, grasping her hand.
It felt soft, warm, but still brittle, like it could crumble inside mine.
‘Life is a really brittle thing, huh.’
Aya’s words kept repeating constantly in my head.
After that, we never spoke about the dog again.
And that knife has been with me until this day.
I hadn’t used it back then, and hadn’t thought about using it, ever…
Ever, for many years, until I entered middle school, on the day of the entrance ceremony, on the inner garden of the school under a cherry tree…
Until I saw her, like a mix of darkness and the night–––
I opened my eyes.
I was inside of Iron Forest, on top of the red wolf’s back.
Ahh, right… This is the same smell I felt when Aya said that.
The smell of death is filling this place.
Maybe it was because of that that I remembered stuff from my past.
I reached my hand out to the scruff of the wolf’s neck and softly petted it.
I felt the touch of fur, the sensation of flesh, the pumping of his blood. I felt his warmth, the signs of life.
But at the same time, I felt a strong stench of death coming from this wolf.
Maybe he was trying to have a fast and reckless life, or maybe he was trying to die faster, but there was something hopeless about him.
“We’ve arrived.” At the same time as he muttered that…
Without any warning, an opening appeared in Iron Forest.
As if his previous speed hadn’t existed in the first place, the red wolf came to a stop without making any noise.
I stepped down from his back, and turned to look at that.
A towering iron colored tree…
And Otoa’s figure in its shadow.
Her green eyes were closed, her body covered in the fancy white dress and in a fetal position.
A translucent cocoon enveloping her.
“The heck is this.”
“Preparations to end it all.” The red wolf beside me also looked at the cocoon.
I realized it then, that he wasn’t looking at the cocoon but looking at-
-“Or maybe, he’s trying to start it all instead.”
-the silver wolf dozing off just besides the cocoon.
“Here was the starting point for us. And if we could end it here, then maybe we were blessed after all–––Rather than continuing to live, we had so much higher chances of being saved.”
His voice sounded like a lamentation, and the silver wolf opened his eyes.
“But even that would be an unexpected blessing.”
For a moment, I saw the color of helplessness in the red wolf.
And it was only then that I realized that that encompassed everything the red wolf was.